Buenos Aires Times

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Gun rules grieta: Bullrich’s move to empower police sparks controversy

Security Minister Patricia Bullrich defends resolution granting federal security officers greater freedoms to use their weapons, as human rights organisations lead criticism of the move.

Saturday 8 December, 2018
Security Minister Patricia Bullirch during a press conference during the G20.
Security Minister Patricia Bullirch during a press conference during the G20. Foto:Screenshot

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The Mauricio Macri administration’s decision to loosen the criteria under which police officers and the security forces can use lethal weapons to fire on suspects, has opened a pandora’s box in Argentina.

Resolution 956/2018, which allows security officials to shoot suspects if they are fleeing from the scene of a crime or pose “imminent danger” to others, sparked a political firestorm. It even prompted one of its own coalition lawmakers to strongly condemn the new regulation in no uncertain terms.

“The regulation for security forces by Minister Bullrich violates fundamental human rights. We will not step toward fascism,” declared outspoken deputy Elisa Carrio, the Civic Coalition leader and a prominent figure in the ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition.

The new policy, announced by Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, approves the use of firearms by security and police officers when other nonviolent measure results are deemed insufficient. Officers can shoot when they view an individual as an “imminent danger” to others or to prevent a person “from fleeing the scene of a crime.” Most controversially, officers will not be required to warn suspects before firing, or announce who they are, when individuals when there is a “risk of death or serious injury” to others, nor when the officers lives or physical wellbeing is put at risk.

Faced with a wave of criticism from politicians, commentators and human rights advocates, Bullrich defended the move, saying that “99 percent of people who die from a firearm die at the hands of a criminal” and arguing it was necessary to give security forces the “ability to defend society.”

“Until now, a weapon has represented danger instead of an element of defence of society. If it was used, then he [the officer] had to give explanations about why he used it, in what conditions, why he shot. And it was always the agent never the criminal [who did the explaining],” she explained, saying the government was creating “a clear, strict regulation.”

She emphasised the use of deadly force should be “a last resort.”

However, human rights organisations across the board, both nationally and internationally, warned it sets a dangerous new precedent.

‘AGAINST INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS’

“The resolution goes against international standards for the use of force, which will put both the people as well as the police at greater risk of suffering violence,” Victoria Darraidou, an investigator for the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), one of Argentina’s leading human rights organisations, told the Times.

NGOs including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also expressed concerns over the manoeuvre, saying that while they recognised that the regulations cite United Nations principles, it was full of ambiguities that granted the security forces wide discretionary powers over how to utilise deadly force.

Among the fiercest critics was the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which highlighted how the shift in regulation was occurring in a context where other countries in the region were advocating a return to tough-on-crime security policies.

“First they shoot, then they investigate. First, they shoot, then they ask – this is very serious,” said Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, an IAHCR commissioner, on Thursday.

While support for harder measures against criminal suspects has been expanding in Latin America, due to the perception of a rise in homicides, government statistics show Argentina is going in the opposite direction. Argentina’s statistics for homicides and robberies are declining – with data putting the annual tally at the second lowest in the region.

‘IT’S STRAIGHTFORWARD’

In 2017, there were 2,275 murders in Argentina, equating to 5.2 homicides per 100,000 people, statistics from the Interior Ministry show. This represented an overall decrease of 562 deaths, a decline from 6.6 murders per 100,000 people two years previous, in 2015. Thefts are also falling, dropping from 1,097 per 100,000 people to 991 per 100,000 people in 2017.

Despite the improvements in both the homicide and theft rates, surveys show that the government is not alone is its desire for less restrictions on the use of firearms: there is broad support in Argentina for government’s new resolution.

According to a survey published by Management and Fit this week, which questioned 1,000 people, almost 60 percent of Argentines said they supported the new security protocol, while 39 percent said they rejected it. Men tend to be more in favour of the regulation than women, the poll showed.

“It’s straightforward. In Argentina there is a lot of crime and criminals have all the benefits, laws that protect human rights, that also protect them,” Teodoro Molinas, a lawyer in his early 30s, told the Times. “This has to end, and this measure does that.”

Molinas explained how two years ago he had been robbed by two criminals with a gun. He says a police officer observed the crime, but couldn’t do anything to stop them.

Although Molinas recognised that the new regulation would lead to abuses, he said he believed that the benefits would outweigh the negative results of the law.

IMPLEMENTATION

Implementing the change, however, may not be so straightforward. In an attempt to prevent the regulation from being put into effect, human rights organisations and opposition politicians have already filed legal actions against the shift.

Speaking Thursday night in a TV interview, Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal dismissed Carrió’s allegation the move would lead to fascism, and issued her support for Macri and Bullrich. However, she said she would not implement Bullrich’s new rules of engagement nonetheless, branding it unnecessary because the nation’s most populous province already had a working protocol that clearly defines the use of force that was set up in 2006. There was no need to implement the new regulation, she declared.

Meanwhile, a legal battle has opened in the capital. Buenos Aires City Judge Roberto Gallardo declared the new law unconstitutional after accepting writs submitted by Workers’ Party legislator Myriam Bregman and human rights lawyer María del Carmen Verdú.

Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s administration, however, said they would adhere to the new protocol. The City decided to appeal the judicial ruling using the arguments that the City judge’s decision exceeded his jurisdiction since the resolution was made by the national government and that it wasn’t based on the objective reasoning of the Security Ministry’s regulation.

The City government is also seeking to advance a project that would allow 25,000 police officers under their jurisdiction to use lethal arms. For example, they want to permit the use of shotguns that use steel bullets and ammunition cartridges, instead of rubber bullets or blanks.

The national government also argues that the judiciary is preventing security forces from stopping crimes.

“Today, when a police officer is in a shoot-out, the majority of the Judiciary will indict them for the excess of legitimate defence, they arrest and then see … the new regulation is part of a political decision to protect and support the police,” City Security Secretary Marcelo D’Alessandro told the Clarín newspaper.

Meanwhile, Argentina’s provinces seem to be divided over the regulation. Mendoza Province Governor Alfredo Cornejo hailed it for offering more support to security forces, though he recommended that a police-training programme to prevent the risk of innocent people dying should accompany it.

On the other hand, Santa Fe Province’s Governor Miguel Lifschitz was firmly against it.

“I don’t think this is the way to solve the problem of violence and security in Argentina,” Lifschitz told Radio La Red.

So far, at least seven provinces, Jujuy, Salta, Santa Fe, Rio Negro, Cordoba and Entre Rios have said they won’t implement the regulation.

THE CHOCOBAR CASE

While the introduction of the new protocol arrives on the back of a heavily policed and successful G20 Leaders Summit in the capital, for many the basis of the change dates back almost exactly one year ago, to December 2017.

The case that many consider was the turning point was the so-called ‘Chocobar case.’ Luis Chocobar, a police officer, was indicted for homicide after fatally shooting 18-year-old Juan Pablo Kukoc, a fleeing suspect who had led a violent attack on US tourist Joe Wolek in La Boca.

Both Macri and Bullrich came out strongly in support of the police official, in spite of the indictment. The president even hosted Chocobar at the Casa Rosada. It was at that moment that the minister promised to start reviewing the current regulations, arguing that officers shouldn’t end up in prison for doing their jobs. After the statute, which is nicknamed ‘the Chocobar doctrine,’ was released, Bullrich declared: “Chocobar will be freed now, he will be acquitted.”

Darraidou, speaking for CELS, pointed out that judicial oversight over police violence, in reality, tends to be the exception rather than the norm. “They make it seem like the police are being persecuted by the justice system when the contrary happens,” she said.

In Argentina, few cases get the attention that the Chocobar case did, with the country’s judicial system suffering from a lack of resources, meaning they can’t adequately review all criminal cases, much less potential cases of police abuse.

The debate over the new protocol will assuredly continue in the coming days, with multiple debates and arguments being held on TV talk shows, in government halls, and around dinner tables.

A definitive answer is unlikely at this juncture, but high-profile incidents – such as the Chocobar case – are sure to prompt shifts in public opinion, to one side or the other.

Carrió ceretainly believes so. This week she warned: “The day they kill someone’s son for being brown or having long hair, you’ll remember me.”

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